It’s much more common than I would like it to be: an ESL student in my Freshman Composition class works hard, comes to every class session, scribbles assiduously during my lectures (poor dear), turns in every assignment, but hovers near the failing mark. Unfortunately for too many of them, their writing just makes very little sense.
This semester, the students are from Viet Nam and Eritrea, but I’ve had students from Liberia, Mexico, Brazil, Ethiopia, and China in the past year as well. The Ethiopian student dropped out after the first class session, and a few stuck it out for several more weeks before dropping. The man from Liberia stayed till the end of the course but failed (this one did very little work and missed a good deal of class, however). Some managed to pass with low C’s or D’s. This is possible only because I value content over grammar and grade accordingly. I really want these students to succeed, but I feel that my ability to support them effectively is limited.
Most of these students have taken advantage of the free Writing Center tutoring the college provides, which is certainly helpful. I’ve gone over assignments with them after class and given a little extra time occasionally. But it’s not enough. I took a graduate class in Second Language Acquisition last fall that I hoped would help me better help my students, but since I don’t have the one-on-one office time with students a fulltime faculty member might, and I have 17 or 18 other students to instruct, I can’t alter my methods enough for one student without the rest of the class suffering.
My current graduate class is Professional & Technical Writing, and we’ve been reading about “genre theory” the past several weeks. Although it’s dull as the paint job on an old Chevy after a sandpaper buffing, it’s giving me a much better understanding of why my students are struggling. They know English vocabulary fairly well, but they haven’t yet grasped the nuances of the language or the contexts in which it’s used. One student translated a passage last week from a slang-laden paragraph into academic language for an assignment. To her, “buying into a stereotype” meant “purchasing a stereotype.” And this was only one of the sentences in her rewrite that demonstrated problems—nearly every one did. I gave her comments and a little extra time to rework it. I don’t know if it will be enough.
The day before this, I happened to see my Eritrean student in the math lab and had a lengthy conversation with him that left me more determined than ever to do what I can to help these students succeed. The conditions he left behind in Eritrea are foreign to me in so many ways that I know I don’t fully comprehend the challenges he’ll have to conquer to become a pharmacologist. I know too much now to just let him fail, though; it will feel as though I’ve failed. At the same time, I have high standards and won’t give grades that aren’t earned.
This whole situation leaves me a little unsettled. How do I faithfully fulfill my responsibility as a composition instructor to the 20 students assigned to me, when a few students are working twice as hard as the rest but will, at the end of the semester, still fail to interpret or write effective academic texts? Can I legitimately hold some students to different standards? I don’t think so, and this is my dilemma.
I take solace in the fact that most of my ESL students demonstrate the ability to think critically about the material they do understand, and the fact that this skill and their determination will take them further than the state of their English compositional abilities will. But I still worry they’ll give up in the face of short-term failures. We’re nearly halfway through the semester already, and progress has been slow.
Until recently, I hadn’t fully understood the barriers ESL students face in decoding English idioms, or the culture in which they were created. My current students have demonstrated their willingness to learn, however. I have to be satisfied that with enough time, they will become fluent in both the culture and academic genre to express themselves effectively in English. While I may never witness these results, I’m inspired already by their deep resolve.